George Reed - Running Back - Washington State - 1963-75
- Kevin Mitchell - Saskatoon Star Phoenix - April 22, 2006 - The Might-Have-Beens of George Reed
REGINA - George Reed never paid much attention to bright lights and starry dreams -- not when he had kids to feed, and his head buried in a linebacker's midsection.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders' legendary fullback carved his brilliant, but pain-soaked, prairie football career on the back of $3,000 Canadian dollars. That was the difference between what the Roughriders offered Reed coming out of Washington State University in 1963, and what the NFL's Denver Broncos offered.
The extra cash propelled Reed into Regina's Taylor Field. Thirteen storied seasons followed, and one intriguing thought: What if he'd stayed Stateside and played in the NFL?
Old-time Roughriders fans shudder at the thought.
"I was in university and needed money," explains Reed, now a 65-year-old Calgary car salesman. "It was an opportunity for my wife and I to have a few things. I took Saskatchewan and I've never been sorry for it."
Reed played in an era when the CFL's salary structure competed head-on with the NFL's. He says he received overtures from NFL teams throughout his career, starting in 1965 when he won the Schenley Award as Canada's most outstanding player, through to 1972-73, when George Allen tried to talk him into joining the Washington Redskins' famed "Over The Hill Gang."
Reed estimates he entertained nearly a dozen NFL suitors during his career, most between 1965 and 1970.
He turned them all down cold.
"If it had been in today's market, I probably would have gone because of the money difference," says Reed,who had three brothers, two cousins and a brother-in-law play in the NFL.
"Back then, the money difference wasn't that great. Denver was the closest I ever got, in 1969, but there wasn't enough upside for me to leave. I was working for Molson's, and the difference in money was only going to be $5,000. I told them if I came down there, I wanted no less than a two-year, no-cut contract, but they were only going to give me one year. I wouldn't take that."
So Reed toiled in the relatively obscure world of the CFL, in the relatively obscure city of Regina. He burst into the American media when he broke Jim Brown's career professional rushing record -- Reed recalls Sports Illustrated writing a feature story -- but his fame, in general, was a localized phenomenon.
"I've talked about that with my brothers and my cousins who played in the National Football League," Reed says of his decision to stay in Canada.
"I was never one to worry about the glory of the game. If I was that infatuated with the National Football League, I would have gone. But I wasn't infatuated. I was looking at whether I could make a living at it and get a few things for the family. That's why I never had any (second thoughts) about not going back there."
Reed, no dazzling speedster, constructed his stats on a body with remarkable pain tolerance. He played a half-dozen games in 1970 with a fractured leg; the other 12 seasons featured an assortment of busted bones, torn muscles and head-long bull-rushes at opposing defenders. Reed finished his 13 seasons with 3,243 carries, still a league record. His 16,116 rushing yards are second only to former Eskimo Mike Pringle.
He retired one spring day in 1976, just a few weeks before training camp. Reed was attending a meeting at the Sheraton Hotel in Saskatoon when it hit him -- he didn't want to play football anymore, despite rushing for 1,454 yards the previous season.
He got up, excused himself from the meeting, and went home to tell his wife and the team he was done.
Reed's cranky right knee, which acts up when the weather changes, still reminds him of 13 violent seasons. So does an iffy right shoulder. But considering how much punishment Reed absorbed on football fields across Canada, his body's holding together remarkably well.
"I'm surprised I have nothing wrong with my hands -- I think I broke both of them four times," Reed says. "I dislocated shoulders; I cracked ribs. I chipped a vertebra in my neck, but so far, that's been good -- that's the one thing I was really worried about as time went on. I've got the mentality 'it hurts a little bit today, but I've got things to do, so let's get it done.' "
Reed remains a diehard, and sometimes testy, Roughriders' fan 30 years after his retirement.
"I have my good days with the Riders, and I have my bad days," said Reed, who attends several CFL games a year.